I’ve been trying to summon up something that resembles the “Christmas spirit,” muted by this time of social isolation and continuing lockdowns. For years, our holidays were filled with family traditions, memories, and the excitement of Santa’s arrival during the night of December 24th— all re-experienced years in the wide-eyed excitement of our grandchildren. Now they are old enough to know that Santa Claus isn’t “real,” but their joy and excitement are as fresh as ever, and sharing the holidays with them, re-kindles our own memories of our childhood Christmases.
Yet this year, with COVID cases rising again at a disturbing rate, we will, like so many others, be spending our Christmas alone. Isolated from my daughters by distance or the pandemic, the usual magic of Christmas tree trimming, colored lights everywhere, holiday carols, and the remembrance of Santa Claus seem like distant memories. At times we struggle to quell our anxiety and cling to hope—as so many others in a time time that has unended our sense of well-being, community, and hope. The vaccine can’t come soon enough—but even as it begins to arrive, then what will “normal” life look like? What losses are yet to be fully realized? There are challenges yet we will all face.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Christmases past—those that were joyful; others that were accompanied by losses and difficulties. I’ve remembered childhood, when Christmas was a magical time, and I, like all the children my age, believed in Santa Claus. Those memories also reminded me of the time I discovered Santa really didn’t exist…
Third grade. I was eight years old, and it was early December, shortly before our Christmas break. I arrived at school morning and was hanging up my winter coat in the cloakroom when my two best friends came in and pulled me aside. “Guess what,” they whispered, “There is no Santa Claus!” I stood stock still, trying to take in what they were telling me. Santa, they said, was made up. He was something for little children, not for 8 year old girls like us. “It’s your mom and dad,” they whispered conspiratorially. They buy all the presents and put them under the tree. Santa Claus isn’t real. He’s just for little kids!” They smiled smugly, watching to see my reaction.
“I know,” I said quietly. I didn’t want to appear stupid, but I was embarrassed, because the truth of the matter was this: I still believed in Santa Claus, even in third grade. Besides, I had a younger sister and brother, so Santa Claus was very much alive in our home. I returned home after school that day with the weight of an awful secret on my shoulders. Should I should tell my parents I knew there really was no Santa after all? In the end, I said nothing and a day or two later, my sister and I came down with the chicken pox, just days before the Christmas break. There would be no visit to sit on Santa’s lap that year.
Shortly after dinner, Christmas eve, a loud knock sounded at the front door and we heard a deep voice saying, “ho, ho, ho.”
“I wonder who that might be,” my father said, winking at my mother as he went to open the door. Santa Claus, somewhat slenderer than I had imagined, stepped into the front room. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said again, then took his big bag of presents from his shoulder and sat in the chair my father offered, telling us to come close to Santa. I could only stare, the secret told to me by my friends burning in my brain. Was this really Santa or just someone pretending?
There’s an old black and white photograph from that long ago Christmas eve: my little brother sits on Santa’s knee, my wide-eyed sister next to him, while I am seated farthest from him, doubt clearly etched on my face. I still remember how much I wanted to believe it was really Santa Claus sitting with us, but I couldn’t. I was now old enough to know better.
Early the next morning, , I tiptoed to the living room before the rest of the family awakened, eager to see the presents which had appeared under the tree during the night. Our colored tree lights had been left on and the were drapes open to make them visible to passers-by. I knelt at the big picture window and looked out: snow had fallen during the night, frosting streets and sidewalks a sparkly white. That’s when I saw him—Santa Claus. He was opening the gate to a neighbor’s house just three doors down from ours and walking inside. For an almost magical moment, the possibility of Santa Claus’s existence lingered that Christmas morning, snow glistening in the morning sunlight, as I watched a bearded man in a red Santa suit disappearing inside, an empty burlap bag slung over his shoulder.
I stopped believing in Santa for good after that year, but the memory of that last glimpse of him, remained for a time–the faint hope he might exist. It was about what it meant to grow older and be conflicted: not wanting cling to childish beliefs, and yet, reluctant to let go of the magic of Santa Claus for just a bit longer. There would be similar life lessons repeated many times in my life—broken dreams, discovered truths that were hard but necessary to accept, losses of people and beliefs I thought never could happen. But that’s life, isn’t it? We all come to terms with the difficult parts as well as the good, and somehow, we still find hope, good, and love in the midst of life’s most challenging moments–maybe even magic or miracles… just like that earnest eight year-old gazing out the window on a Christmas morning, the first snow glistening, while a man in a Santa suit disappeared into a house and rekindled a hope that maybe, just maybe, Santa existed.
It is probably why I still love the famous letter written by Francis Church, then a writer for the New York Sun, responding to eight year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter asking, “Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?” Church was given the task of responding to her. He wrote:
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. (From: “Is There a Santa Claus?”The New York Sun,September 21, 1897)
I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to give up on the spirt of Santa Claus, of the generosity, kindness, courage and gratitude I have for the gifts of life I have experienced during my lifetime. It’s those memories and qualities that keep me going and give me courage and hope.
To all those reading this blog, I wish you a holiday season that includes the warmth of friends and family, however far apart we must be this year, and for year ahead, hope and healing.
The December holidays are full of memories. Whatever your traditions, write about some of the most “alive” memories you have of this time of year–what stands out for you?
Did you believe in Santa Clause when you were a child? When did you stop? Was it any specific event that changed your belief? Write about it.
What, in this year’s holiday season, will be different for you? How are you making it–or not–a time of celebration, even without the usual activities,family or friends as part of it?
What’s most important for you to remember this holiday season? Why?